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Sunday, September 15, 2013

Ambivalent Light

On Wednesday afternoon, with no pressing preparation for Thursday's classes I allowed myself the freedom to go home and read on the bench in our front yard.  It was a magical fall day, full of light that shone through the tall red grasses I had put in a planter with begonias this year.  Not needing to prepare for Thursday, I was beginning to read a book on trauma edited by Cathy Caruth that I will use in my winter term class on the Canadian novel and its tendency over the last ten years to revisit moments of historical trauma, violence, or loss.  Caruth points to one of the paradoxes of trauma:  that it is a kind of after-image that its victim revisits later, rather than at the time of the event.  Thus, the "truth" of the event is illusive as its shadow or after-image, which Caruth takes to be "not so much a symptom of the unconscious, as it is a symptom of history" (5).  I had made myself a low-tech latte and sipped it as I looked through these glasses at the light, thinking about the traumas of history occurring right now, in Syria, for example, where children who have been traumatized or moved to refugee camps will never be able to challenge the way these years have forced them to view the world and their lives.  The red grasses continued to glow and rustle.

On Saturday, I spent most of the day in a board room discussing the unsustainability of the Saskatchewan Book Awards.  A reluctant participant--I wanted to be outside!--I nevertheless found it a valuable discussion and thought we came to some agreement about what we could and could not go on doing with our limited resources.  Bill had dropped me off, since parking downtown is troublesome, and I was delighted at 4 to walk down Rose, across Victoria, and then through that very mixed neighbourhood south of Victoria and north of College, jogging to catch that lovely little park between 14th and 15th where people were playing baseball.  I stopped at the beds to look at airy sprays of white flowers I couldn't name, and watched the sunshine come through the corn and sunflowers at the south end.  Fall days have a certain kind of potential in them, as if they are the perfect time to begin a new life.  I could easily imagine myself at 24, settling into one of the lovely old apartment buildings (lovely from the outside, anyway) to become a writer.  Except at 24, battered in a whole variety of ways, I would have had no sense whatever of how to begin the first sentence.  That golden light suggested perhaps that it's better to begin this  next year at 64, when I will have some tentative idea about what I'm doing.  The clear light of spring perhaps has its limitations; perhaps it's the hazy slanting light of fall that reveals honest complexities and complications you might otherwise not notice. 

There's something about early evening light in the fall that makes me feel domestic, makes me imagine that we have all taken to our houses with a new sense of comfort, houses that smell of bread; houses where soup is on the stove and there's a line of newly-preserved fruit in its jars on the counter.  All cliches.  How to get beyond the cliche to express the powerful feeling I have in such light.  I think of the work of Winnipeg artist Aganetha Dyck, who once created the most startling, comforting, discomforting installation of buttons that she had canned.  The heat of the canning process had made the buttons expand and soften: they were extraordinarily beautiful.  Yet there's something perverse about canning buttons, taking the domestic out of our clothing and putting it in jars.  They might capture the fact that while the light speaks to me of deep comfort, I know at the very same moment that it's not something shared, universal.  Someone is eating a frozen dinner alone.  Another person isn't sure eating is worth the trouble.  In another household, eating is a time of family squabbles and argument.  Yet that same light shines through the windows in all of those houses.

Today, Bill and I went for a walk along the creek west of Elphinstone.  The trees, as you will have noticed, have just begun to turn.  At the same time, under the bridges was the most playful graffiti, reflected in the water.  We startled three yellow-shafted flickers, and they flew their golden underwings against that startling blue sky, dropping light as they rose.

When we got home, Bill put on music for me to cook by, something he often does.  Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong brought their own kind of gravely playful light into my kitchen as they sang "Autumn in New York"--my favourite Vernon Duke song.  I hadn't realized how much light their is in the lyrics:  glittering crowd and shimmering clouds in canyons of steel and gleaming rooftops at sundown.  I can hear the light in their voices.


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